Playing Ourselves: A Review of “Active Measures” by Thomas Rid


Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare by Thomas Rid

Thomas Rid’s Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare certainly lives up to its title, providing a brisk archival jaunt through the last hundred years of attempts by intelligence agencies to twist reality to their own ends. More importantly, however, it puts disinformation in proper perspective; though disruptive when done well, disinformation hasn’t proven all that successful in practice. In particular, the book presents Soviet and later Russian disinformation campaigns as largely inept or ineffective – and hardly the work of the omnipotent puppet masters that populate the American public imagination today.

But the picture Rid paints is far from rosy: key institutions and elites in open societies have proven to be all too willing – if not necessarily witting – accomplices of foreign intelligence agencies in their quest to disseminate disinformation and sow discord around the world. Indeed, the producers of disinformation rely on this mostly unintentional support from within the societies they aim to undermine: as one East German intelligence officer asked rhetorically in the late 1980s, “What would active measures be without the journalist?” It’s clear from Rid’s account that open societies ultimately wind up playing themselves far more than they’re played by foreign intelligence agencies. 

That leads to one of the book’s main weaknesses, namely its failure to examine disinformation campaigns that don’t originate with state intelligence agencies. In part that’s due to Rid’s otherwise admirable reliance on archival sources and, in the case of more recent Russian active measures, technical expertise. It’s not that Rid fails to acknowledge that activist groups and political parties can be involved in disinformation campaigns – indeed, he observes that Soviet and Russian intelligence agencies targeted “activists and intellectuals who criticized the U.S. government” as part of their own active measures campaigns – it’s rather that the book does not explore as fully as it could the possibility that these groups could carry out their own disinformation campaigns. 

Still, Active Measures ought to serve as a wake-up call to elites and institutions – and the news media in particular – in open societies to apply greater critical scrutiny to the agendas promoted by their sources. These elites and institutions have proven noticeably reluctant to engage in introspection about the pivotal role they’ve played in the disinformation campaigns carried out by hostile foreign intelligence services, preferring instead to blame a supposedly gullible public duped by “fake news” planted on social media platforms. But Rid rightly brings our focus back, at least in part, to remarkably credulous news media and activist cultures that serve as prime vectors for disinformation. 

Overall, Rid’s history of disinformation makes plain that active measures possess a highly inflated reputation. For all the hype they’ve received in recent years, the track record of disinformation campaigns shows only a handful of success stories. With some quite notable exceptions, moreover, it’s hard to understand how these successes actually altered the course history in meaningful ways. It’s not unreasonable to conclude from Rid’s narrative that disinformation campaigns haven’t really mattered all that much in the grand scheme of international politics.

Perhaps the most successful active measure pursued by the Soviet bloc during the Cold War involved East Germany’s Stasi. In the early 1970s, the West German government led by Social Democratic Chancellor Willy Brandt faced a vote of no-confidence in the Bundestag; East German authorities preferred Brandt’s dovish Ostpolitik policies toward the Soviet bloc over those of his potential replacements. Brandt’s government was saved by two abstentions from conservative deputies, one of whom confessed to having been bribed by the Stasi a little over a year after the vote. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, Germany’s federal prosecutors revealed that the other member of parliament abstained after receiving money from a journalist and Stasi asset posing as an agent of American influence. As Rid puts it, the deputy “took the money and voted for the Americans. Or so he thought.”

Throughout the Cold War, active measures carried out by the Soviet bloc created headaches for the United States and its allies in Europe. But it’s hard to say they had much of an effect on the ultimate outcome of the ideological conflict between Moscow and Washington. Nonetheless, active measures had considerable success in suborning journalists and activists to Soviet strategic ends. In the late 1960s, for instance, the KGB fabricated nuclear war plans for NATO and leaked them alongside a trove of legitimate documents provided by a disgruntled U.S. military courier earlier in the decade. Left-leaning publications in Italy, West Germany, and the UK ate up these salacious plans and did the KGB’s work for it. 

A similar dynamic recurred in the late 1970s when radical anti-intelligence community activists published and publicized an alleged U.S. Army counterinsurgency field manual supplement forged by the KGB. This counterfeit stoked far-left paranoia with its recommendation that Army intelligence officers should penetrate insurgent groups and encourage violent attacks. Here again, disinformation coursed through left-wing channels across Europe and allowed radical activists to absolve left-wing terrorists of responsibility for the kidnapping and murder of former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro. More important, Rid tells us, was the fact that anti-intelligence community activists “added real value to an existing active measure, and improved its performance.”

From the late 1970s to the end of the Cold War, Soviet bloc intelligence agencies actively penetrated Western anti-nuclear and peace movements in order to use them as diplomatic and political bludgeons against the United States and its NATO allies. The KGB and its satellite intelligence agencies claimed success in derailing U.S. development of a neutron bomb in the late 1970s, for instance – but it’s unclear what this tactical success achieved for the Soviet bloc in the long run. 

More ominous was the KGB-led campaign to use active measures in support of U.S. and Western European peace movements in the 1980s. They plowed fertile soil, with “hardened activists” indifferent to the sources or even veracity of leaks that confirmed their pre-existing ideological dogmas. Here again, the Stasi was most active: it recruited West German peace activists as collaborators and established a front organization of former NATO generals to champion the Warsaw Pact perspective on the nuclear arms race. Since most people want peace and fear war, one KGB defector explained, Soviet active measures aimed “to persuade the public that whatever America does endangers peace, and that whatever the Soviet Union proposes furthers peace.” “The trick,” Rid writes, “was to make activists and others support Soviet policy unwittingly, by convincing them that they were supporting something else.”

Perhaps the strangest twist to the Cold War-era symbiosis between Soviet bloc disinformation campaigns and activist groups can be seen in the emergence of HIV/AIDS conspiracy theories during the 1980s. As Rid relates, the KGB and Stasi glommed onto these conspiracy theories only after they’d started to circulate and fester on “the far-left fringes of American civil rights activism.” Though the Soviet bloc only pushed this particular suite of conspiracy theories for a short period of time, mainstream news media in the United States and Europe picked up a single Soviet-sponsored AIDS conspiracy theory and propagated it far more successfully than the KGB or Stasi could ever hope to do themselves. 

In the roughly two decades following end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union, active measures largely died down. They did not disappear entirely, but the scale and scope of such campaigns declined as Soviet bloc intelligence agencies like the Stasi disbanded and Russia coped with the collapse of communism. Though Russian intelligence services began exploiting the disinformation possibilities of the internet by the late 1990s – Rid notes that the first known “kompromat” effort dates to 1999 – it took another decade or so for these agencies to merge “old-school intelligence leaks involving compromising material” with “hacking and high-tech internet sabotage.”

By the 2010s, Russian intelligence began road-testing these new disinformation techniques in Ukraine. It started with the February 2014 leak of an intercepted conversation between senior State Department official Victoria Nuland and the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine to various social media platforms, a leak that was then amplified by American and European press coverage. Based on Rid’s account, the Nuland leak appears to be the first known use of digital active measures by a foreign intelligence agency. Other similar attempts would follow that year in Ukraine, including forged emails attributed to a U.S. Army attaché detailed to Ukraine and a hack of Ukraine’s Central Election Commission.

These digital active measures in Ukraine set the stage for Russia’s disinformation campaign against the United States ahead of the 2016 presidential election. As Rid persuasively argues, however, the effectiveness of Russia’s active measures has been grossly exaggerated over the years since the election. A look at the data, for instance, shows that the much-vaunted Internet Research Agency – Russia’s notorious troll farm – had at best a miniscule impact on the presidential campaign. Just 8.4 percent of overall IRA activity related to the election, while the IRA itself “generated less than 0.05 percent of all election-related posts.” Indeed, the IRA viewed its primary audience not as easily-deceived American voters but the government-linked Russian oligarchs who paid their salaries. Only after the fact did the mainstream press and Congressional investigators elevate the IRA’s rather feeble disinformation efforts into a world-historical active measures campaign.

More consequential were GRU – Russian military intelligence – hacks of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign chair John Podesta. But even here, Russian digital active measures proved far less proficient and capable than many Americans have been led to imagine. Though technically adept and just plain lucky in its penetration of U.S. computer networks, the GRU had little sense of what to do with the data it pilfered from DNC servers and Podesta’s personal email account. Indeed, “GRU officers were unable to recognize and extract politically juicy content from Podesta’s [email] inbox” despite having had access to the account for over two months before they started to publicly disseminate its contents.

When its initial attempt to push its active measures flopped, the GRU appealed to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for help. At the same time, the GRU set up a poorly-disguised online cut-out known as “Guccifer 2.0” to leak the stolen Democratic campaign files. Assange prodded the GRU to send more files his way, telling its sock-puppet Twitter account that WikiLeaks “will have a much higher impact” than a thinly-veiled Russian intelligence pop-up site. What’s more, GRU officers did not appear to have much of a grasp of the internal Democratic Party politics in which they hoped to interfere. By mid-July 2016, the GRU sent WikiLeaks a cache of hacked DNC files for Assange to publish.

American political journalists then did their part, “rummaging through the dump in search of scandal.” Reporters from mainstream news outlets like Politico and Der Spiegel “regularly corresponded” with GRU officers on Twitter, while a number of influential journalists “remained usefully ignorant, either wittingly or unwittingly.” That October, WikiLeaks released the contents of Podesta’s inbox – just an hour after the U.S. intelligence community publicly identified Russia as the culprit behind the DNC hack. Though these leaks fueled a political media feeding frenzy that severely damaged the Clinton campaign at critical moments, they were not the result of an adroit and far-sighted Russian disinformation campaign. As Rid notes, the GRU proved so bad at media outreach that it unintentionally showed “how much value Julian Assange added to their campaign.” 

Throughout Active Measures, Rid remains largely focused on Russian state-sponsored disinformation campaigns. But it’s hard to read the book and not come away intensely critical of the indispensable roles played by activist groups and the news media in disseminating disinformation far and wide. That’s especially the case when it comes to contemporary disinformation campaigns, where nihilist activists like Julian Assange materialize at pivotal moments to guide and assist culturally incompetent Russian intelligence agencies.

Rid lays his cards on the table early on: “Activist internet culture shrouded what used to be a shadowy intelligence tactic in a new, star-spangled cloak of crypto-libertarianism.” Much later, he characterizes Edward Snowden as a “lowly NSA contractor, under the spell of transparency activism.” Nevertheless, naïve digital libertarians and a credulous press colluded to promote Snowden’s massive dump of classified information and, in many cases, themselves. Media outlets, Rid remarks, often “ran incomplete and error-ridden stories” that frequently overstated the collection and interception capabilities of American and British signals intelligence agencies. “Journalists and opinion leaders,” he writes, “were now more willing than ever to embrace anonymous leaks without spending too much time checking on their provenance or veracity.” 

In retrospect, it’s hard not to see the Snowden leaks and the hysteria that surrounded them as a de facto disinformation campaign in and of itself. The mass release of sensitive intelligence documents engineered by Snowden and his journalistic helpers amounted to what early Trump booster Steve Bannon would later call “flooding the zone with shit.” These leaks not only induced a widespread moral panic about “mass surveillance” that damaged U.S. national security, “they formed the perfect techno-cultural cover for active measures.” Rid makes a compelling if indirect case that stories about alleged NSA surveillance of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone were in fact an active measure of unknown provenance that slipped into the news cycle amidst “the frenzied coverage of the Snowden files.”

Rid concludes his narrative with the tale of the Shadow Brokers, an unknown group that stole NSA hacking tools and loosed them on the world. The release of these tools coincided with public statements from NSA leaders that the agency would go on the offensive in retaliation for the DNC hack-and-leak, fostering widespread speculation that the Shadow Brokers worked for or were Russian intelligence – though another line of thought holds disgruntled former NSA operatives responsible. Whatever the truth may be, the Shadow Brokers saga gives lie to many of the hyperbolic and paranoid claims made about supposed NSA malfeasance during the Snowden leaks.

Out in the wild, the NSA’s tools were picked up and wielded by North Korea – which held Britain’s National Health Service among other targets hostage with stolen NSA-developed hacking tools – and Russia. Moscow used these tools to mount a little-noticed cyberattack on Ukraine that shut down the country’s supermarkets, shut down its transportation infrastructure, and disrupted its telecommunications networks. Known as NotPetya, this malware soon infected computer networks outside Ukraine and caused companies like Merck and Moeller-Maersk hundreds of millions of dollars. Production of cookies and condoms alike fell as a result of what Rid calls the “most destructive and costly cyberattack in history.”

It may seem paradoxical, but even after its more powerful cyber-weapons slipped from its grasp the NSA comes across as a more-or-less responsible and trustworthy national intelligence agency. Where Russian and North Korean intelligence agencies deployed these powerful tools wantonly for fun and profit, the NSA appears to have used them far more judiciously. Moreover, this track record makes it all the more apparent that the mainstream news media were insufficiently skeptical of the claims made by Snowden, Assange, and their enablers. Many reporters proved too uncritical of the motives and agendas that drove these activists, taking their claims about motives and purposes largely at face value. 

After reading Active Measures, it’s extremely difficult to disagree with Rid’s closing plea to privilege analysis over emotion and objectivity over ideology. As he puts it in the book’s final pages, “Active measures are purpose-designed temptations, designed to exaggerate, designed to give in to prejudice, to preformed notions – and to erode the capacity of an open society for fact-based, sober debate, and thus wear down the norms and institutions that resolve internal conflict peacefully.” While Rid’s analysis convinces, he does leave readers bereft of practical suggestions to counter the corrosive effects of disinformation.  

That’s unfortunate, especially at a time when loud voices that thrive on emotion and ideology dominate public discourse in open societies around the world. These voices crowd out the sort of sober and objective analysis Rid sees as necessary to inoculate our societies against disinformation. But what remains most striking about his overarching narrative is the tendency of journalists and activists to get played by and even participate in disinformation campaigns. In the end, it’s not the general public that’s susceptible to active measures but rather many of the institutions and elites that proclaim themselves to be the defenders of truth, justice, and democracy.

While Rid rightly raises broader questions about the elevation of emotion and ideology over facts and analysis in open societies, it’s clear these problems won’t be solved any time soon. But journalists and other elites can do their part by evaluating their sources more responsibly thinking about them more critically. They can view these sources and the information they provide with greater skepticism, questioning more thoroughly why these sources are providing particular data points and what agendas their sources hope to advance. That’s especially the case with activist sources like the radical anti-intelligence community activists of the 1970s or the likes of WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden today. 

Moreover, the news media and similar institutions ought to perform some serious introspection about their own roles in the disinformation campaigns of the past decade. A modicum of self-awareness of the role intelligence agencies, professional activists, and political campaigns expect them to play as they deluge our public discourse with excrement would certainly help. Unfortunately, there’s been no sign that the press – and the political news media in particular – has engaged in this sort of self-examination. Instead, the news media has deflected blame to the social media giants like Facebook and the public at large while proclaiming self-righteous slogans about their own role as guardians of democracy.

That’s worrying because, as Rid notes, open societies generally find themselves at a steep disadvantage when it comes to disinformation campaigns. This vulnerability to active measures shouldn’t be seen as a weakness, however. It’s part and parcel of what open societies are, and it’s foolish to think it should be any other way.

But institutions and elites vital to the functioning of open societies – especially the news media and journalists – need to act with greater responsibility and professionalism when it comes to potential sources of disinformation. Given the dire financial straits of contemporary news organs, it’d be too much to hold out hope that this shift will happen any time soon. If the news media truly wishes to hold itself out as the main protector of open societies, however, it needs to take its otherwise self-serving claims seriously and act accordingly.

Ultimately, though, open societies can only stop playing themselves in the face of disinformation if they combat the corrosive cynicism that active measures aim to foster. In that battle, a healthy skepticism toward outlandish and too-good-to-be-true claims from dubious sources will serve us well. A focus on the facts can be the first, necessary step down the long road to rebuild our collective capacity for empirical analysis and deliberation.